Yoon Suk-yeol: Was the South Korean president frustrated by green onions?

  • Written by Jan McKenzie
  • Seoul correspondent

Image source, Reconstruction of the Korea Party

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Opposition leader Cho Gu Guk campaigns with a Dior handbag and green onions

In February, the price of one apple in Korea reached $7 (£5.50), albeit in a luxury supermarket. Fruit is expensive here, but for voters, who have been struggling to punish high grocery prices, this went too far.

In a failed attempt to address their concerns, President Yoon Suk-yeol visited a food market and was impressed by how “reasonable” green onion prices were. The market in question was actually heavily subsidized. Online outrage and ridicule ensued.

The leader of one of the opposition parties chanted: “The president will fall with a green onion.”

But food prices are just one of a long list of reasons why President Yoon's conservative party lost South Korea's parliamentary elections, which were seen as a vote of confidence in his first two years in office.

Mr. Yoon has always been unpopular. Since he was elected with the narrowest percentage of votes in South Korean history – 0.7% – his approval rating has tended to hover around 30% to 40%. Last month, half of those polled thought he had done a “very poor” job so far.

“There are many incidents that have weakened his standing,” said political expert and pollster Dr. Lee Sang-sin. The first is a series of diplomatic gaffes, which have made international headlines, such as when Mr. Yoon was caught swearing on a microphone shortly after his meeting with US President Joe Biden. These events embarrassed Koreans who felt that Mr. Yoon had tarnished their reputation abroad.

Then there is his wife, First Lady Kim Keun-hye, whom, according to Professor Lee, “the people hate more than the president.”

She was accused of plagiarizing her university thesis and manipulating stocks. Last year, footage emerged of her flouting anti-corruption laws by accepting an expensive Dior handbag. Although she initially played an active role as First Lady, Kim has not appeared in public with her husband since.

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Mr. Yoon is with First Lady Kim Keun-hye, who analysts say is less popular than him

Mr. Yoon has also alienated voters with his confrontational political style. A former prosecutor with no prior political experience, Mr. Yoon is sometimes said to act more like a prosecutor than a politician.

“He gives the impression of being stubborn, does not listen or compromise, and has developed an almost authoritarian style,” said Dr. Lee of the Korea Institute for National Unification.

In short, President Yoon has failed to win over voters outside his loyal conservative support base. The result is that his party has failed to control parliament, meaning it will be difficult for him to pass laws and fix pressing issues – such as a slowing economy, unattainable house prices, and a rapidly aging population.

Before Wednesday, the opposition already controlled Parliament. This defeat makes him the only president in South Korea's constitutional history to face an opposition-led assembly throughout his only five-year term. His authority has been severely weakened, and he risks becoming what analysts call a “lame duck.”

Friendly relations and growing disagreements

With his domestic agenda faltering, Yoon has so far focused his efforts on foreign policy, and despite his unpopularity at home, he has succeeded in making friends abroad. He entered office wanting South Korea to play a greater role on the world stage, and was determined to move beyond what he saw as the shortsightedness of his predecessor, who at the end of his term had become fully absorbed in making peace with North Korea.

Mr. Yoon presented himself as a champion of liberal and democratic values, and promised to condemn those who do not adhere to them. Therefore, his strategy was to take a tough stance with Pyongyang. He has intensified military exercises on the peninsula, imposed sanctions on the North, and retaliated whenever Kim Jong Un attacked him.

His critics say he was unnecessarily provocative. North Korea is launching more weapons than ever before, and inter-Korean relations are at their worst in years.

But his relationship with the United States flourished. Strengthening the security alliance between Seoul and Washington has been at the heart of Yoon's foreign policy. When President Biden sang a rendition of Don McLean's “American Pie” at the White House, it was a symbol of how the two countries are singing from the same page. Yoon has been music to America's ears as it seeks to strengthen its alliances in Asia to confront China.

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Watch: South Korean President sings American Pie to Joe Biden

Yoon gained more respect from the United States when he buried historical differences with Japan, in order to launch a trilateral security relationship between Tokyo, Seoul, and Washington, at great political cost. This move was not popular at home, but Western diplomats praised the leader for his courage and boldness. The lack of security ties between Japan and South Korea is seen as a major weakness in Asia.

But such audacity had its price. In the past, South Korea walked a delicate tightrope between the United States and China, carefully balancing the needs of its military ally and its largest trading partner. “Strategic ambiguity” was the name given to this approach. But ambiguity is not Mr. Yoon's style. He has criticized China, even warning it about its behavior toward Taiwan, which has angered Beijing. This has never been done by South Korean leaders before. Mr. Yoon's comments appeared reckless and inconsistent with some on his team.

“There is a feeling among some in the government that they have allowed relations with China to become too tense, and after the election they need to redress the balance, especially to revive economic relations,” said Dongmin Lee, a professor of political science at Dankook University. .

Some here argue that while defending liberal democratic values ​​is a noble endeavor, it is perhaps not the wisest strategy for a country sandwiched between China and Russia, especially at a time when both are close to being your enemy. As one official said: “North Korea is a factor in every decision we make.”

The biggest and most unpredictable challenge Yoon faces in the coming year is the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House. During his presidency, Trump courted Kim Jong Un and threatened to withdraw all US troops from South Korea. Whatever direction Yoon takes, Trump's re-election may force him to change course.

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Mr. Yoon won praise for the historic trilateral summit with President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in 2023.

But while Yoon has aligned himself with the West as a defender of democracy, his government has been accused of rolling back democracy at home.

He has called his opponents “communists,” attacked the media for “fake news,” and his office has filed libel cases against critical journalists. He has been accused of stoking gender divisions, and has vowed to abolish the government's Ministry of Gender Equality. Unable to do so without parliamentary support, the position of Minister of Gender Affairs was left vacant.

A recent report by the Varieties of Democracy Institute in Sweden concluded this Democracy in South Korea is on a 'downward slope' Since President Yoon took office. She ended up studying in the country, according to Jongmin Kim, managing editor of the Korea Pro news service: “Clearly, people, at least liberals and those in the middle, can detect hypocrisy, and are embarrassed when I see Western leaders hailing Peon as a protector of democracy.” .

Although divided parliaments are common in South Korea, Yoon never once sat down with the opposition leader to seek a compromise. Instead, he resorted to a presidential veto of the torpedo laws. He has used his veto power more than any other president since the 1980s. This has earned him a reputation as someone who does not care about popularity, but rather as someone who does what he believes in, regardless of what others say or think.

“It seems that what Yoon really cares about is being remembered fondly by his hardline supporters and in the history books — not what the rest of the population, parliament or even his own party thinks of him,” Jeong Min Kim said.

Yoon Suk-yeol has probably already earned a place in the history books through his reconciliation with Japan. But as his power declines, he will have less influence abroad in the future. At home, his lack of support means South Koreans can expect more parliamentary gridlock, political hostility and polarization.

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